Gulf Cooperation Council states are adapting to the geopolitical developments of their region: the sectarian conflict of the Syrian civil war, the U.S.-Iran rapprochement and the reverberations of the Arab Spring that are still being felt throughout North Africa and Egypt. Like most nations, their adaptations are guided by their national interests. But their national interests often conflict with how Saudi Arabia, the most influential member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, envisions the bloc going forward.
This partly explains why Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors to Qatar on Wednesday ahead of a planned March 25 meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers. The move comes at a low point in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In fact, the conflict between national imperatives and Saudi Arabia's regional strategy involving the Gulf Cooperation Council states is seen most clearly in the difficult relationship between Doha and Riyadh.
Historically one of the world's poorest nations, Qatar was enriched by the discovery and production of its significant natural gas reserves out of the offshore North Dome field. The early 2000s saw a dramatic rise in Qatari natural gas production and exports, and by the end of the decade Qatar had become the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. This began a new era of natural gas production: As Qatar prospered, many of its neighbors saw oil production and exports plateau; Bahrain and Oman even saw their exports and revenues decline.
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Newfound natural gas revenues enabled Doha to pursue both economic and political independence and to move out from under the shadows of regional giants Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar's neighbors are oil-rich but natural gas-poor, so Doha found itself relying on a commodity that Saudi Arabia could never out-supply or undersell. Rising natural gas production and exports coincided with Qatar's rising independence and attempted leadership in the Arab and Islamic world, both of which were increasingly worrisome to Saudi Arabia as it sought the same leadership role. Unencumbered by difficult domestic politics such as those in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and economically more stable than Bahrain or Oman, Qatar emerged as the member of the bloc best suited not only to pursue a more independent foreign policy but also to challenge Saudi primacy in the region.
Recent years have seen an even stronger push by Qatar to use strategic investments, natural gas wealth and a dynamic foreign policy to effectively carve out its own internationally recognized identity and independence. Under former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar was a leading regional voice in supporting international intervention in Libya, backing Syrian rebels and giving financial and energy aid to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.
Qatar's responses to Syria and Egypt have showcased the differences in the regional strategies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. With one of the smallest native populations in the world, Qatar faced fewer risks from a rising trend of Islamist affiliation and political activity in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and the monarchies in Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco to a lesser extent — interpret the rise of a democratic political Islam as a threat to the foundations of their respective authority.
Wednesday's move by Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis (Bahrain's participation is largely perfunctory, thanks to its economic and military dependence on Riyadh) reflects growing frustration with Doha's divergent foreign policy. Qatar has been effective in distancing itself from the policies of its neighbors, including the Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti cooperation to help oust the Islamist government in Egypt, but still lacks the tools necessary to lead the bloc's decision-making or change regional paradigms in its favor.
While the fall of the Morsi government and the current pushback against Islamism in the Arab world limits the effectiveness of Qatar's investment and development of relationships with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Doha is focused on the bigger picture. Qatar views Islamism as a long-term trend that the region's political leadership will have to contend with, as governments in Morocco and Jordan have already done, however begrudgingly. The Qatari government hopes to insulate itself from any future conflicts that may arise from regional political shifts, clearly delineating its own policies from those of the Saudis and Emiratis. Qatar did not achieve what it hoped to in Egypt by backing regional Islamist groups — a decision that has created friction among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — but it is still a relatively low-risk endeavor with a potentially high reward in the future, mirroring the style of Qatari investment in recent years.
The dialogue between the United States and Iran has also created opportunities for Doha to pursue an agenda independent of that of its peers. Doha shares its most strategic economic asset — the North Dome field — with neighboring Iran. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar cannot compete with Iran for regional hegemony. Instead, it has cultivated a more nuanced relationship with Tehran. Qatar's geographic proximity and small size have created a scenario in which Doha's interests are best served by balancing between its larger, more powerful neighbors.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is not yet at risk of dissolution or changing its membership, but the fluid geopolitical situation in the Middle East is affecting even the most stable states within the region. Qatar, a relatively small, weak state, will make even more moves that foster resentment among its neighbors, but the risks of appeasement will be outweighed by the Qatari imperative to maintain its sovereignty. But rather than remaining on the defensive, Qatar's unique foreign policy flexibility and ability to forge new and at times relatively unorthodox relationships within the region will let Doha take advantage of potentially lucrative geopolitical opportunities within the Middle East's evolving order. Qatar's movements will continue to strain the bonds among the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but its moves reflect Qatar's shifting perspective on the region rather than threaten the continuity of the union.